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Magazines > MultiMedia Schools > May/June 2003
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Vol. 10 No. 3 — May/June 2003
Making IT Work for Learning
Technology and the Test
By Trevor Shaw
Director of Academic Technology Dwight Englewood School Bergen County, NJ


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Recently, I was meeting with a group of teachers and administrators examining the usefulness of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) in the classroom. We talked about how a student PDA program might work, and how students might be able to use the devices to collect data, take notes, and have quick and easy access totremendous amounts of reference material in each of their subjects. Everyone seemed to agree in principle that these were useful benefits that would only enhance the educational experience for students and allow teachers to assign more engaging types of activities in their classes.

Then the topic of testing came up.

"Obviously, we'll have to collect these during exams," one teacher commented.

"Why would you do that after spending the entire semester getting the students to depend on them?" replied another.

To Look Up, or Not to Look Up

This then led to a pretty even split within the group about assessment in general, the purpose of exams, and to what extent electronic tools support that purpose. Some argued that electronic tools such as graphing calculators allow teachers to ask more authentic and probing questions by helping students to visualize the behavior of certain types of data without being bogged down in the minutia of computation. Others responded that a student's ability to internalize an understanding of that minutia is critical to his or her ability to solve larger, more complex problems. Others also emphasized that in some subjects such as a foreign language, basic memorization of vocabulary is a central part of what they are assessing in the first place. To give them a tool such as a PDA or laptop so they could quickly look up words in an electronic dictionary would make critical parts of the exam pointless.

For years, critics of school technology spending have pointed to studies that show no significant impact on student performance from technology in the classroom. Technology supporters counter by stating that to use computers to deliver the same type of instruction and to assess learning in the traditional sense of quantitatively measuring the amount of information the student knows or the speed with which she can recall it is to miss the point entirely.

It seems clear to me that in most subjects, a fundamental literacy of basic information is required to be successful. Algebra students who haven't memorized the multiplication tables will have difficulty factoring quadratic equations. Spanish students with limited vocabularies will have difficulty carrying on conversations beyond the most basic levels of discourse. I think we who support more widespread use of instructional technology would be foolish to discount the importance of these basic skills and not to recognize the potential danger of allowing technology to function as a crutch, enabling students to circumvent their mastery.

Others, however, would be equally foolish to confuse basic, foundational skills that need to be internalized in order to achieve basic mastery of a subject with facts related to a subject that are memorized and quickly forgotten shortly after the course is over. Too often, we mistake information for knowledge and speed for skill. When a significant portion of an assessment tool is devoted to verifying that a certain amount of information has been committed to memory, it is easy to see why an instructor would resist the use of technology tools during an exam.

Swimming Against the Current

Fear of cheating is the most common reason teachers resist the use of electronic devices in an exam. To reject or limit the use of electronic devices in most exams is, however, tantamount to swimming against a strengthening current. As electronic devices become smaller, more easily concealed, and more universally connected to each other and to the Internet, teachers who think they are doing anything at all to prevent cheating by prohibiting them will find that they are only fooling themselves. With communication technologies such as wrist watches that connect to the Internet, Blue-Tooth-enabled cell phones, and PDAs that support text messaging and chat, I think we will soon find ourselves in an environment in which it is virtually impossible for teachers to ensure the integrity of the exam in traditional ways.

Many teachers try to balance the benefits of technology use with the need to ensure academic honesty by allowing students to use things like graphing calculators, but only after a proctor has checked their memory to ensure that the student hasn't stored formulas or other pieces of information that might help them during the test. While this might be a noble attempt at infusing technology into the learning and testing process, I believe that it fails to recognize the main purpose of the technology as a tool to extend student thinking. Storing a formula in a calculator before a test is evidence that while the student may not have committed the formula to memory, she has given thought to why she might need to refer to it. When she successfully applies the formula during the test to analyze or interpret data, she will have shown that she understands its purpose and "knows" it better than a student who has done nothing more than commit it to memory.

Why, then, do we insist on including such information on major assessments? Why do English exams include vocabulary and factual questions about texts? Why aren't physics students allowed to bring formulas required for solving problems into the exam? Why are history students expected to answer questions without the benefit of their textbooks?

QA=Qualitative Analysis

The answer lies in the fact that we are desperate for some quantitative way of assessing student performance. Authentic, meaningful projects are often messy, and their assessments are almost invariably qualitative. Despite the fact that all true assessments are qualitative, we often aren't comfortable hanging our hat on an assessment of a student unless we have some factual, numeric data to point to and say, "You got a C because you could only recall 75 percent of the vocabulary that I assigned." We lack confidence in our ability to be fair and to articulate the qualities that demonstrate excellence.

Because of this, we become married to anything that can give us an objective view of the student's learning. We conclude that the students who can memorize the best are either the smartest, or the hardest workers, and either way deserve the best grades. We overlook the fact that while often helping us identify the best students, these assessment tools tell us very little about student understanding of the subject.

In such a situation, student electronic devices can only cause problems. Tools that help adults find, evaluate, and apply information as they work become instruments for academic dishonesty in the hands of students. They subvert this process of evaluation that we find so comfortable by taking away factual recall as a basis for evaluation.

In response to this, we will have to design assessment tools that are more reflective of the way knowledge and information are used in the adult world. These tools will support access to information rather than restricting it. They will encourage collaboration rather than punishing it, and they will reward the application of information and not simply the regurgitation of it.


Trevor Shaw has worked as technology coordinator, consultant, speaker, and classroom teacher since 1993. His work has focused on staff development, curriculum design, and how new technologies impact teaching methods. He is currently the director of academic technology at the Dwight Englewood School in Bergen County, New Jersey. He can be contacted at shawt@d-e.org.
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